Philly’s New Generation of Unions Is Young, Progressive, and Coming to a Coffee Shop Near You
Last year, a handful of Fishtown cafe workers decided they’d had it with low wages and lousy working conditions and set out to form a union. Now, other service-sector and white-collar workers are following suit. Is this the start of a new labor movement?
Get a compelling long read and must-have lifestyle tips in your inbox every Sunday morning — great with coffee!
The Cake Life Bake Shop is a sleek, narrow structure on the Frankford Avenue corridor in Fishtown. Its interior looks as much like a photo studio as it does a bakery: rows of perfectly reflective, perfectly Instagrammable white tiles, black industrial lamps hanging overhead. It’s the kind of store that sells a lavender cake made with “local bee pollen” and cookies in honor of International Women’s Day frosted with the slogan “100% THAT BITCH.” Beyoncé was once a . Multi-platinum Grammy winners aside, Jameson Rush, a former employee, describes the usual clientele as a “bougie kind of gentrifier group.” The bakery is, in other words, a prototypical New Philadelphia establishment: young, hip, insurgent.
Last August, the , which also operates as a coffee shop, received a spate of negative Yelp reviews about its coffee service. A manager gave the front-of-the-house barista staff a scolding, letting slip that the owners were considering firing everyone to remedy the situation. “We were treated as disposable,” JJ Jury, one of the baristas, says.
In response to that rumor, Rush, who’s 26 years old and had worked at the bakery for a year and a half, called a meeting at his house with five other baristas. They got to talking about the threat of their impending firing. Then people started to bring up other workplace gripes: their pay, which, at around $9 an hour, Rush describes as “starvation wages”; a co-worker who occasionally let slip racist remarks; sexist or racist customers the staff was powerless to kick out of the store; the fact that employee work schedules were unpredictable and determined just one or two days in advance, which meant, Jury says, that employees only ever had “one or two days in which we could plan our lives.”
In some respects, these complaints are par for the course for the service industry. Rush had worked plenty of jobs worse than Cake Life, including at motels and Taco Bell. None of those jobs had been unionized, though Rush did have an early dalliance with labor organizing at UC Santa Cruz, where as an undergrad he helped galvanize support for TAs and campus workers who went on strike for better pay, once getting arrested while serving as a link in a human chain that had blocked off the main entrance to campus. So when a number of Cake Life baristas began asking themselves at that meeting, Why should our work be inherently bad?, Rush came prepared with a list of solutions. One of them — his preferred choice — was to form a union.
A bakery in Fishtown is perhaps the last place you’d expect to encounter a grueling union fight — especially in Philadelphia, where any mention of unions immediately calls to mind one group in particular: the building trades. But far from being an outlier, Cake Life is part of a new frontier of unionizing in Philly. In the past year, workers of all stripes across the city have started labor campaigns of one kind or another: reporters at public radio station WHYY, museum curators and staff at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, grocery-store workers, gig workers, baristas, domestic workers, nurses. This burst of activity comes against a backdrop of massive labor decline: American unionization is at its lowest point in the past 37 years. The workers fighting to form unions in Philly, though, are bucking that trend, and doing so predominately in two parts of the economy — the service and white-collar sectors — that haven’t recently been labor strongholds.
A bakery in Fishtown is perhaps the last place you’d expect to encounter a grueling union fight — especially in Philadelphia, where any mention of unions immediately calls to mind one group in particular: the building trades.
Despite the inauspicious national trends, Philadelphia has remained a rare example of union strength. There are historically powerful groups like the trades, along with a set of established unions that are becoming increasingly progressive and activist: , the (AFSCME), and the (SEIU). Those unions have already begun to challenge the dominance of the trades in politics. Add to the mix this newest generation of unions — almost all of which are being led by young, left-leaning organizers — and a different vision of trade unionism is beginning to emerge: one that is racially diverse, explicitly political, and as concerned with inequality outside the walls of the workplace as within. “The people organizing themselves right now see themselves as part of a movement,” says Dermot Delude-Dix, a 33-year-old organizer with Unite HERE Local 274, which represents service workers at hotels, stadiums, and the Philadelphia International Airport. That is to say, the unionizers aren’t likely to organize their workplaces and then slink away, satisfied. They have broader aims. Delude-Dix says, “I think it’s more likely that if these efforts are successful, they will continue to fuel a movement for justice in civil rights, police reform, equality.”
Emboldened by their early discussions, the Cake Life baristas sought organizing advice from a three-year-old volunteer group called . A project of with 35 dues-paying members, Dignity exists to help in precisely these scenarios, shepherding inexperienced workers through the obscure maze of unionizing. “The most motivating factor for us in organizing workers is the liberation aspect,” says Kevin McCloskey, Dignity’s 34-year-old co-founder. “It’s really looking at work as, if you work full-time, that’s about a third of your week that you’re going to work basically in a dictatorship.”
McCloskey came to realize this himself over the course of a career filled with low-paid odd jobs (a partial list: construction, flower delivery, auto-parts delivery, warehouse stocking, van driving). Once, at the van gig, he was forced to drive a car with no air-conditioning for the entire summer. Eventually, he had enough, demanding a different vehicle. At first, the boss declined. McCloskey held firm, and sure enough, a new van miraculously became available. That was an early lesson. “I saw what withholding your labor does,” McCloskey says, “but also felt extremely scared for my job and totally unprotected.”
Like many of the people who are part of the new labor movement — more than 75 percent of all new union members were under the age of 35 in 2017 — McCloskey came of professional age in the aftermath of the 2008 recession. He saw firsthand, at one of his warehouse jobs, how the recession produced a new class of temp employees working for lower pay and no benefits. A few years later came the Occupy Wall Street movement. If 2008 made it clear that the system was broken, Occupy suggested a way forward through organizing. These days, Dignity has dreams of creating an independent citywide union that would cover most workplaces. (Socialism in one coffee shop this is not.)
The Cake Life workers spent a few months discussing the fledgling union with colleagues they thought would be sympathetic. They developed a list of demands, including paid time off, better wages, and the right to deny service to abrasive patrons. Last December — one of Cake Life’s busiest times of year — a group of 10 employees climbed the stairs to the second-floor office where owners Lily Fischer and Nima Etemadi worked. They took turns reading from a demand letter that announced their intent to unionize. “Working in the service industry is tiring, stressful and chaotic,” they declared. “In recognition of your desire to be a progressive business and workplace, we hope that you will understand our right to demand a more stable and supportive work environment.”
Fischer was the only owner in the office that day; according to the baristas, she was taken aback. She asked why they’d make these demands without raising them with her first. (The baristas say they wanted to approach ownership from a position of strength.) Eventually, Fischer and Etemadi decided against recognizing the union. “It was clear to us that not everyone on staff who the union sought to represent was aware of their efforts or wanted to be part of a union,” they explain to me in an emailed statement. Instead, Fischer and Etemadi did what most employers do when faced with the prospect of a union: They hired a lawyer.
Philadelphia has played a central role in the American labor movement for centuries. “If you want to learn labor history, you don’t need to go anywhere other than Philadelphia,” Penn history professor Walter Licht says. That history begins in the 1790s, when small trade unions started to form along the East Coast, including in Philly, where a group of shoemakers, or cordwainers, organized one of the first labor unions in the country. In 1805, those same cordwainers struck for better wages, leading to their arrest and a court battle that set a legal precedent effectively criminalizing labor strikes for the next hundred years. The legal ban on striking didn’t blunt labor’s preferred and most effective tool, though. Just three decades later, in 1835, Philadelphia was the site of the nation’s first general strike, when some 20,000 workers — longshoremen, house painters, carpenters, bricklayers, blacksmiths — all walked off the job for three weeks, demanding, and winning, a 10-hour working day.
Despite few legal protections for organized labor, the movement was able to grow while industrialization produced a massive new crop of factory jobs that were ripe for organizing. By the 1950s, 40 percent of all jobs in Philly were in manufacturing, of which more than 75 percent were unionized. The national sentiment seemed to have turned toward labor. In 1935, Franklin Roosevelt signed the , a New Deal-era bill that overturned the anti-strike precedent from the cordwainers’ action a century before and established the National Labor Relations Board, a forum to oversee elections and rule on worker grievances.
But the Wagner Act didn’t go on to produce a unionized workers’ utopia. In fact, the 1960s marked the beginning of the national decline in union membership that continues to this day. There are two ways to understand this shift. One is as an unfortunate consequence of economics: The forces of deindustrialization — that is to say, globalization — evaporated the deepest pool of union jobs, as manufacturers sought cheaper labor overseas. But another, more accurate way is to think of the decline of unions as an explicit political project.
Just 12 years after Roosevelt signed the Wagner Act, conservative politicians in Congress turned back the clock with a new piece of legislation: Taft-Hartley. That bill was a double-sided assault, attacking would-be and already-formed unions. It allowed companies to lobby against the formation of unions (read: union-bust) while also taking aim at “closed shops,” at which union locals could require that all new employees be dues-paying union members. Taft-Hartley enabled states to pass so-called right-to-work laws, which allowed workers to opt out of paying any dues — even though they received all the perks of union-negotiated contracts, like better wages and benefits. Effectively, the law allowed anti-union workers to become free riders.
The emergence in the 1960s of public-sector unions — which often organized women and minorities, groups historically shunned by the blue-collar labor movement — did little to stem the overall decline. Too many private-sector manufacturing jobs had been lost. These forces still reverberate today: Just 10 percent of U.S. jobs are unionized, down from 35 percent at unions’ peak in 1954. Only six percent of private-sector jobs are unionized, compared to 34 percent of those in the public sector. In Pennsylvania, union membership has dropped 24 percent in the past two decades, from 885,000 workers in 2000 to 676,000 today. “The eclipse of trade unions in the U.S.,” Licht says, “is a phenomenon duplicated nowhere else in the world.”
Perhaps it’s no surprise that public-sector unions are now in the crosshairs. The number of right-to-work states grew from 22 to 27 in the past decade. (Pennsylvania isn’t among them.) Former Wisconsin governor Scott Walker famously busted that state’s public-sector unions in 2011, signing a bill that stripped them of all bargaining rights except over wages. As a result, some of the state’s largest unions lost up to half their membership. But it was really the Supreme Court that delivered the gut punch in 2018 with the landmark . In it, the court ruled that workers who opted out of public-sector union membership didn’t have to pay dues of any kind — even lesser amounts known as “agency fees,” meant to cover only the costs of bargaining the contracts that applied to all employees — effectively turning all of the public sector into a giant right-to-work state. Trump appointee Neil Gorsuch cast the deciding vote.
The chiseling of unions into dust has been one of the primary accelerants of American income inequality. According to one Brookings report, the top one percent of the U.S. in terms of income now holds 29 percent of household wealth, and a Pew report found that the wealth gap between the richest and poorest Americans doubled from 1989 to 2016. In a recent paper titled two Harvard economists concluded that this declining power, which began in earnest in the ’70s, had one main cause: the disappearance of unions.
Additional data suggests the economists are right. In the book , Steven Greenhouse, a New York Times labor reporter, outlines a rash of similarly troubling statistics: Wages, adjusting for inflation, haven’t increased since the 1970s; worker productivity, which historically rose at about the same rate as employee compensation, is now growing six times faster than pay; the share of GDP made up of business profits is at its highest level since World War II, while the share of worker pay and benefits is at its lowest. The Bureau of Labor Statistics tells a related story: Non-unionized workers earn just 81 cents on the dollar compared to their unionized counterparts. Ninety-four percent of union members had retirement benefits as of 2019, compared to just 67 percent of non-unionized workers. When union membership declines, workers become worse off.
What’s more, even among the unions that are left, the strike has been left to fossilize. In 1952, there were 470 strikes of at least 1,000 workers, good for an average of nearly 40 work stoppages per month, according to the BLS. In 2019, there were just 25. That this was a record for the entire decade tells you all you need to know.
Something funny is starting to happen, though. The decline of unions has produced so low a standard of living that workers are thinking about ways to improve things. As it turns out, many are starting to decide that what they need is a union.
The union drive at Cake Life quickly produced results for employees. They learned from Dignity that according to city law, they were legally entitled to paid time off for sick leave, which they hadn’t been receiving. “The owners say that they didn’t know about it,” Jameson Rush says. “Who knows? Our response was that as a business owner, it’s your responsibility to know what the rules are as far as employing people.” PTO-for-all became one of the union’s central demands, and the owners relented — a concession that strengthened the budding union’s resolve.
But relationships at the bakery had deteriorated. The shop had always been divided into silos, with the back-of-the-house “cake team” — many of whom were already earning PTO — occupying a preferred position to the front-of-house baristas. The baristas were eager to lead the union charge, but this was their first labor fight, and at times, their inexperience showed. Most notably, they committed a cardinal sin of labor organizing: In their haste to form the union, they announced their plans, thinking they already had majority support, before speaking to every member of the staff. “The cake team ended up feeling pretty railroaded,” Rush says.
That one mistake had a compounding effect. Knowing they’d screwed up, the baristas undertook an aggressive campaign aimed at bringing the bakers over to their side. One of the bakers, Kaeleh McBride, started receiving messages from Rush, who offered to take her out to breakfast to discuss the union. But McBride felt the baristas had ruined a once-collegial workplace and told Rush she had little interest. Then, Rush showed up one day at her bus stop near the bakery, trying to pitch the union as she finished walking to work. What might have seemed like shoe-leather salesmanship to Rush read more like creepiness to McBride. “I don’t think he really meant it to be that way, but that’s how it came off to me,” she says. McBride says other employees had similar experiences with overzealous baristas; in the end, it only served to crystallize their no votes.
The biggest opposition, though, came from ownership. In their email response to questions, Fischer and Etemadi say that their anti-union stance doesn’t come from antipathy toward the labor movement. “We celebrate and appreciate the important and ongoing legacy of the labor movement, unions, and worker-led organizations,” they write. However, when it came to a union forming at their own company, Fischer and Etemadi believe it wasn’t “necessary to protect or support employees” because their business is “progressive” and “strives for a harmonious relationship with employees.” Fischer and Etemadi say they were further disinclined to voluntarily accept the union drive because they “received multiple employee complaints regarding union conduct, misinformation, and lack of information. We accordingly sought to provide a fact-based perspective, wanting our employees to understand all aspects of this decision as soundly as possible before casting their votes, regardless of the outcome.”
Fischer and Etemadi seemed to clearly prefer one outcome over the other, though, distributing letters and posting fliers around the bakery that encouraged employees to vote against the union. One such letter distilled the pitch: “By voting ‘NO’ on January 22, you can put an end to unwanted future invasions of your privacy by the union, as well as their interference in your job, your pay, and the conditions of your work.”
Fischer and Etemadi framed the union in stark financial terms, both implicitly and explicitly. One flier exhorted “cake life’s future depends on you!” Another message emphasized that the three-year-old business still wasn’t profitable and “only has five days of operating cash available at any given time.” But this was hard to square with the fact that Fischer and Etemadi had hired the law firm , which reportedly bills upwards of $400 an hour. The owners told employees they’d only hired lawyers to avoid running afoul of any labor laws, but on its website, Littler Mendelson advertises a different skill set: “We excel in union avoidance and elections.”
To the union advocates, this was a comical bit of deception. Here was a business that took pains to present itself as a progressive member of the community — and it had hired a union-busting law firm. McCloskey, the organizer from Dignity, wasn’t surprised. “A lot of businesses that have this left-wing, progressive vibe, you’re seeing them union-busting,” he says. He mentions an anti-union campaign at a vegan meat shop in North Carolina whose products are given socialism-themed names: “It’s happening all over the country.”
The decline of unions has produced so low a standard of living that workers are thinking about ways to improve things. As it turns out, many are starting to decide that what they need is a union.
At the Philadelphia Museum of Art, employees had been engaged in a similar fight since last summer. As at Cake Life, the organizing effort didn’t begin with the goal of unionizing. The inciting incident was instead an anonymous Google spreadsheet, circulating throughout the art world, that listed worker salaries at museums, including the PMA, across the country. Nicole Cook, a 34-year-old program manager at the museum working on a temp contract, was shocked when she came across the list. Like many white-collar workers, she knew she was underpaid. But, she says, “I really bought in, hook, line and sinker, to the line that ‘You’re lucky to be here, this is a prestige position, not a pay position.’” What she didn’t expect was that everyone else was underpaid, too; she’d always figured that eventually the money would come, if you took your time and paid your (figurative) dues. Now that the salary omerta had been broken, she realized it wouldn’t.
Even then, the conversation among her co-workers didn’t immediately turn to unionizing. At many white-collar workplaces, there’s a certain hesitance about organized labor. “Unions were always framed as something that was needed on a factory floor,” Cook says. “When you’re in the office, the assumption is that things are so good, you wouldn’t need that kind of worker representation.” Cook and her fellow organizers soon realized that was just another lie passed down through the DNA of American work culture.
By the time the museum workers told management of their intent to unionize, in May of this year, they had additional momentum, and grievances, on their side. The museum had been the subject of a in the New York Times about its response to workplace sexual harassment. Considering that public relations disaster, you might have expected the museum to recognize the union. Wrong. It instead hired , a Philly union-busting firm that proudly lists among its services the ability to “strategically shape bargaining units to minimize potential union organizing victories.” True to form, according to the workers, the PMA sought to break up the union, arguing that there should be two smaller unions: one for employees “core” to the museum’s mission, another for those who were “non-core.” “That created a lot of righteous anger at the museum,” Cook says.
For all their similarities, the Cake Life and PMA campaigns did have meaningful differences. PMA workers elected to affiliate with AFSCME District Council 47, a well-established union; Cake Life sought to form a completely independent union, to be called Cafe Workers United. “The thinking,” Rush says, “was that by forming an independent union, we’d have the most control over our demands and our tactics.”
There were also distinct economic factors at play. Established unions are increasingly resource-drained and have to choose their fights wisely. A huge institution like the PMA, which has relatively high wages — at least, compared to workers in the service sector — is still a worthwhile bet. But in the service sector, with its high turnover, poor wages, and decentralization (most fast-food chains are structured as franchises, which means each store requires its own separate NLRB vote), there’s simply less impetus for a pre-existing union to expend its energy on a campaign that might, as in the case of Cake Life, only yield 20 dues-paying members. Better to focus on the big fish, like hotels or casinos. This kind of market failure results in a self-fulfilling prophecy: Because the workplace isn’t organized, conditions are poor; because conditions are poor, the workplace isn’t organized.
Despite those differences, the PMA union and Cake Life both shared a fundamental philosophy characteristic of today’s left-wing labor movement. Neither group is thinking strictly in terms of its own workplace. Cafe Workers United has designs on a citywide barista union and has also called on Cake Life to donate to bail funds in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement; the PMA, meanwhile, has opted to form its own local, with the explicit goal of one day recruiting and representing other museums in Philly. Both groups seem to look outward as much as they do inward.
Not all of Philadelphia’s new unions are even unions in the traditional sense of the word. In 2018, Nicole Kligerman set out to help organize domestic workers, a group that has been legally barred from unionizing since the days of the Wagner Act. (The law excluded domestic workers and farmers, two professions that at the time were largely Black; Kligerman sees this as an explicitly racist piece of New Deal-era legislation designed to appease white Southern Democrats.) As a result, domestic workers, who number some 16,000 in Philadelphia, have been left out of the labor movement.
Kligerman, who’s 33 years old, has spent her entire career in organizing. Her first job out of college was in refugee resettlement; later, she worked for the Pennsylvania nurses union and for a group advocating for sanctuary-city policies in Philly. “I had long noticed there was this gap where there’s very little explicit intersection between the immigrant rights movement and the traditional union movement in Philadelphia,” Kligerman says. Organizing domestic workers — many of whom are undocumented — seemed like a way to change that.
But there was that 80-year-old legal barrier: Kligerman couldn’t actually organize a union. So she thought up a different strategy: Instead of seeking gains through collective bargaining, she formed the Pennsylvania Domestic Workers Alliance, which would fight for change in a different sphere: the political.
This had its challenges. Domestic work is diffuse by nature; workers have a mélange of individual clients rather than a shared employer, making widespread political engagement difficult. (There is no 16,000-member email list.) In addition, just like massive corporations such as Uber and Lyft — Kligerman calls domestic work “the original gig work” — the people who hire housekeepers “don’t even see themselves as employers or as having any kind of obligation to the safety and fairness of their workers,” Kligerman says. Lucy Bravo, a domestic worker who’s lived in Philly since emigrating from Mexico 13 years ago, says clients used to occasionally cancel appointments right as she knocked on their front door to report to work. “You don’t have any other choice but to say it’s fine,” she says. “Internally you’re enraged, but you can’t express that.”
The precarity of the work reinforces its exploitation, and because domestic workers make little money — in Philadelphia, their average yearly income is $10,000 — the most obvious means of political influence, campaign contributions, is off the table. But Kligerman, buoyed by what she saw as a string of progressive victories in Philly, including the elections of Jim Kenney and Larry Kranser, figured she could use the domestic workers’ greatest advantage — their size — to force their way into the conversation. They became fixtures every Thursday at City Council meetings for a year, arriving an hour before each session started, in matching t-shirts, to corner politicians and pitch their central demand: a domestic workers’ bill of rights that would provide benefits like paid time off and mandatory contracts with employers, to protect against outrages like last-minute cancellations. (The domestic workers were also known to affix stickers throughout the Council chamber — including on the politicians themselves.) “Our members know City Council and City Hall better than most people in the City of Philadelphia,” Kligerman says.
By the end, Kligerman says, Councilmembers “were rolling their eyes at us, like, You’ve already got our support.” Just 15 months into the alliance’s existence, City Council passed what is arguably the most stringent domestic worker protection bill in the country; it includes a guaranteed right to a contract and paid time off as well as fines for employer noncompliance. The vote was unanimous.
Such explicit political lobbying used to be rare among unions. In the early 20th century, the American Federation of Labor harbored a deep ambivalence toward politics. According to Licht, the Penn historian, the philosophy boiled down to: “The state can give, but it can also take away.” This position made sense back then, when it was still possible to win widespread gains through collective bargaining. Well into the 1940s, it wasn’t uncommon for all the major companies within an industry to agree, for efficiency reasons, to collectively collectively bargain with the unions. For workers, that meant that one concession earned in contract negotiations immediately became a concession earned for all.
But that system, for the most part, no longer exists, and what’s left is a decentralized, unrewarding mess. The NLRB has been “ripped asunder by the current leadership,” says Jane McAlevey, a longtime labor organizer and fellow at UC Berkeley’s Labor Center. The result is that corporations are more likely to cheat in negotiations, knowing there won’t be any real consequences. Labor historian Nelson Lichtenstein has come to a similar conclusion, writing in a 2015 essay, “Collective bargaining has, at best, a minimal payoff.”
The upshot of this dynamic is that unions have increasingly become political creatures. They still have the old tried-and-true technique of political donations, but even there, the deck has been increasingly stacked against them. Thanks to the elimination of donation limits, business contributions have exploded; in her book , McAlevey notes that union and business contributions last equaled one another in 1978. Today, corporations outspend unions 16 to one.
That’s not to say it’s impossible for unions to spend big money and enjoy the payoffs. John Dougherty’s Local 98 electricians union provides a case in point. According to an Inquirer analysis of campaign finances, Local 98 received some $41 million to spend on political races between 2002 and 2018. (The single largest recipient of Local 98 funds: Dougherty’s brother Kevin, now on the state Supreme Court.)
Increasingly, though, Dougherty’s building trades have other union competition. Some of that may be self-inflicted. Last year, Dougherty was charged in a 116-count federal indictment alleging, among other things, that he embezzled union money. (He pleaded not guilty and remains active in the building trades.) Perhaps sensing an opening when Dougherty’s building trades supported two Republicans for City Council at-large seats in 2019, the progressive cohort of unions — SEIU 32BJ, Healthcare PA, AFSCME 1199C, Unite HERE, and the Pennsylvania nurses union — all endorsed Working Families Party candidates Kendra Brooks and Nicolas O’Rourke. (SEIU 32BJ also chipped in more than $171,000 in contributions.) Brooks won, and the two Republicans lost.
So far, Dougherty has played nice in the press, suggesting to the Inquirer in the wake of the defeat that the trades might support Brooks’s future campaigns. Asked for comment for this story, Dougherty sounds the same tune, writing in an email, “As a lifelong union member and a labor leader for the past three decades, it’s gratifying to see a new and growing appreciation for the enduring values of the labor movement.”
But all the kind words in the world don’t change the fact that there is a fundamental philosophical divide between the trades and the progressive unions. For the trades, politics are a funnel — a means of acquiring new construction jobs. The progressive unions, on the other hand, are thinking bigger. “They’re more like social justice movements,” says longtime political observer Larry Ceisler. The unions will tell you this themselves. “The next step is really trying to understand how these problems were created and what the root causes are,” says Marissa Rodriguez, an organizer with the Domestic Workers Alliance.
Does the latest batch of unions actually have the financial clout to go up against the Dougherty machine? Probably not. But it’s not something they seem to be especially interested in doing, either. In fact, the prioritization of campaign contributions is one of Dignity’s gripes with the mainstream labor movement. “You have like 35 percent of their budget going to political activity and a very small percentage actually going to organizing workplaces,” Kevin McCloskey says of the AFL-CIO. Nicole Kligerman, who’s already proven you can win without deep pockets, agrees: “If your power is only through donating to politicians, that’s a pretty weak power.”
The domestic workers have provided a blueprint for a different kind of organizing model. It’s an idea that can be built on. In 2016, a Unite HERE local in Nevada offered its members paid time off so they could help campaign for the union-endorsed slate of candidates. Applied to Philly, such political mobilization could have significant impact in local races, where turnout is lower and margins are smaller.
For all of their apparent momentum, though, there is one feature of the new unions that could hold them back: The vast majority of their leadership is white — a fact that is at odds with their goal of building comprehensive, racially diverse labor movements. The young leftist space is not an especially diverse one to begin with, and many of these labor efforts are so nascent that they haven’t yet had the chance to build the diverse membership they say they want. Chris Woods, a Black labor leader who is president of AFSCME 1199C, a union representing health-care workers, insists the whiteness of the newest labor movements isn’t necessarily disqualifying. “If they can create more organizations that are inclusive of men and women of color, if they continue to be progressive unions that address those social issues of racism, police brutality, and housing disparity within the city, then I think we would welcome those organizations,” he says. “I know I would.” But the new unions still have work to do — work that goes beyond simply organizing more workplaces.
In April, as the pandemic prompted waves of layoffs, Philadelphia’s unemployment skyrocketed from seven percent to 17 percent. More than 70,000 jobs were lost. Many of the layoffs were concentrated in the industries that had been generating the most organizing momentum. Domestic workers suddenly had their hours cut to nothing, and Kligerman was fielding urgent calls. “Many of our members have cupboards that are empty,” she says. Dermot Delude-Dix, the Unite HERE organizer, said in June that nearly 95 percent of the local’s workers had been laid off. An uncomfortable stasis set in: It’s difficult to organize workers when there are no workers.
There were, however, signs of momentum even amid catastrophic economic hardship. In March, when health-care workers at Temple University Hospital demanded hazard pay, management quickly assented. Unite HERE began the process of organizing a new group of workers at the airport. And the PMA union formally won recognition in a landslide: 89 percent in favor.
The staff at Cake Life was less fortunate. In March, the bakery closed, and everyone was laid off. (Ownership still hopes to reopen.) The union campaign continued, undeterred, and for a moment, it seemed to be a success: The initial tally came back 10 votes in favor, nine against. But Cake Life ownership appealed the vote before the NLRB, arguing the baristas had wrongfully excluded a group of workers from the union. The baristas countered that only managers were excluded, and that ownership was trying to strategically add sympathetic “no” votes to the tally. The labor board sided with ownership, and while the case is still being litigated, the current vote stands at 12 votes apiece. It seems there will be no union.
Still, Jameson Rush isn’t entirely pessimistic about the campaign. The pandemic has been a clarifying experience: “It just drives home the need for this sort of organizing,” he says. “Especially as COVID progresses, workers are going to need a voice in order to demand safe working conditions, sick days — these are things that the state has failed to provide for us. So we have to demand it ourselves.” It isn’t difficult to imagine a future in which the very workers that society suddenly declared “essential” start asking to be paid like it. And it’s perhaps not a coincidence that in 1919, the year following the last global pandemic, four million American workers participated in strikes — an all-time record.
Organizing of all forms has a contagious quality. The George Floyd uprisings began in Minneapolis and promptly spread to every major city in the country. There have been many lessons from the protests, but an undeniable one has been that protest, which is to say organizing, works. Unions like Dignity and the Domestic Workers Alliance, with their explicit goals of systemic change, would seem better suited than any traditional labor organization to capitalizing on the winds of solidarity sweeping the country. (And they are sweeping. Union approval is at 65 percent nationwide, its highest level in nearly two decades.)
Precedent-breaking change can happen quickly. When NBA players organized a work stoppage in August to protest the police shooting of Jacob Blake, every other major professional sport followed suit. The moment somehow managed to feel both exceptional and expected. Once you cross the Rubicon of striking, others often follow.
In a similar way, labor fights tend to have a radicalizing effect on those who engage in them. The new influx of energy in the progressive labor movement is coming from people in their 20s and 30s; they’re young, with multiple jobs and workplaces ahead of them. You can bet they’ll try to organize wherever they end up working next. At least, that’s Rush’s plan. “All workers who are involved in this sort of work, even if it fails, they go forward with that experience,” he says, adding: “I hope to do that myself.”
Published as “The Baristas Are Revolting” in the November 2020 issue of Philadelphia magazine.
Philadelphia magazine is one of more than 20 news organizations producing , a collaborative reporting project on solutions to poverty and economic mobility in the city. Read all our reporting .